copyright 2013 by John T. Reed

We West Point grads now get a quarterly, free, controlled circulation alumni magazine called West Point. I have commented unfavorably on the last several covers. At the risk of sounding like I am looking for something to complain about, I must now complain about the latest summer issue. I am not looking for anything. These things jump out at you if you are a graduate.

On one level, West Point calls guys like me “old grads,” and since 1802, the old grads are famous for constantly complaining that the place has gone to hell since they graduated. There is a phrase for it: “The Corps has,” which is short for “The Corps of Cadets has gone to hell since I graduated.” The Corps of Cadets is the student body at West Point.

West Point 2013 is, in fact, the same as when I was cadet in some ways, better in some ways, and gone to hell in others.

There is also the issue of the U.S. military gone to hell. When I entered West Point in 1964, we had just won World War II 19 years earlier. My father and uncles had been in that war. By the time I graduated in 1968, we were deep in Vietnam and the anti-war movement and we lost that war—America’s first military defeat.

Today’s U.S. military is clearly far more interested in diversity and lowered standards and politics than in winning and, indeed, it has not won a war since 1945. Desert Storm was a victory, but it is embarrassing to call it a war. It only lasted 100 hours. It ended like a boxing match where one side is getting injured so severely that the doctor ends the match. And in Desert Storm, General Norman “It doesn’t take a hero” Schwartzkopf’s American military killed more allied military personnel by accident than Sadam Hussein’s men did on purpose.

Anyway, the summer issue of West Point has an Army major face-to-face, nose-to-nose really, at an uncomfortable distance of only about 8 inches with a female cadet of some ethnicity other than Caucasian. We’re probably lucky they used a Caucasian major in this era of diversity above all else.

The major is wearing what I call the combat muumuu—the shapeless, computer camouflage pattern “battle dress” with a matching hat, and his rank hanging off the breast bone part of his shirt like the price tag on Minnie Pearl’s hat. The cadet is wearing today’s version of a class shirt and a dress gray cadet hat. Our class shirt was long sleeve wool and worn with a tie. Hers is short sleeve with no tie.

Each of them has their hat too high on their head. The cadet hat,which is sort of like the traditional policeman’s cap, has a black band around it that is more or less supposed to be parallel to the ground. The round top is sloped up toward the front, and the bill is sort of parallel to your nose. The inside of the hat band would be just above your eyebrows covering your entire forehead.

Not on these two.

The key variable was fingers—two of them. You were supposed to be able to your index and middle fingers—like a boy scout salute—along the top of your nose and the bill of the cap would be touching the fingers. Here is a photo of a cadet senior wearing it correctly while teaching a new cadet how to salute. (By the way, the senior’s salute is wrong. There should be no space between his thumb and index finger.)

The effect of that is to make the three parts of the hat do what I just described above. Plus, it puts the cadets’ eyes deep in the shadow of the cap. There is no shadow in this photo because of the photographer’s flash.

Plus, I think the female cadet in the photo is a plebe—freshman. At West Point, the sloppiest cadets—and that is a very relative term there—are the seniors. Sophomores would like to be sloppy because of a rebound from plebe year, but they are outranked by juniors who are over their plebe year rebound and starting to be given authority. Plebes, at least back in the 1960s, would be the last class to dare wear their hats improperly!

I never wore the cap the major is wearing. But I would expect it is supposed to be worn in the same way. The baseball caps we wore as officers were supposed to be worn the same.

Our dates at West Point complained that when we were wearing dress gray—the most famous cadet uniform which had a high black neck band collar—covered us up so completely that about all they could see was our hands and chin-to-eyes part of our faces. We used to meet our dates in Grant Hall after the Saturday parade and it was very disconcerting for them to see a thousand or more cadets of relatively uniform height, weight, age, haircut, posture—all wearing the exact same uniform (a flag visible from every cadet room told us what uniform to wear at all times). They were trying to recognize their cadet date, but when you can only see hands, chin, nose, and eyes back in the shadows of the cap bill, we almost all looked the same.

The major is showing forehead and has about six fingers of space between his nose and his bill. The cadet has about four fingers of space with the band on the had tilted up at an angle, no part of it parallel to the ground.

I have complained about too much chickenshit in the Army, at West Point, in the Old Guard. Is two fingers chickenshit?

I think wearing uniforms all day every day to go to college is chickenshit. They no longer quite do that. At my 40th reunion cadets were barbecuing in the quad wearing civilian clothes if I recall correctly. They would have put us in front of a firing squad for that in the 1960s.

I think most parades are chickenshit. Having to line our shoes up under our beds just so was chickenshit.

But if you are going to wear the damned uniform, you might as well do it right. We learned the two fingers deal in the first week or so by being taught, upperclassmen who set the correct example, and getting our asses chewed for screwing it up. After that first week or two, it becomes second nature. Every cadet would have the two fingers gap every time without giving it any thought or using his fingers to measure. In contrast, making sure your shoes were lined up took time every day all four years—a waste of time.

The way we wore our hats was, well, serious—military looking. These two on the cover of the West Point magazine remind me of little boys playing sandlot baseball.

When you Goggle West Point cadet images, a lot of what you get show Hollywood actors playing cadets also wearing the hat too high on the forehead. Apparently photographers don’t like the correct way. Indeed, the made-for-TV movie Dress Gray DVD cover shows an actor—Alec Baldwin believe it or not—wearing the hat too high. (His hat is also the wrong color and has the wrong emblem. Dress Gray was a book written by a cadet in the class behind me. It is an extremely accurate depiction of the way West Point was back then, albeit with an unlikely and now politically incorrect plot. Dress Gray is about West Point but they called it the U.S. Grant Military Academy instead of the U.S. Military Academy, and filmed it at VMI because West Point refused to cooperate with it. That’s probably why he’s wearing the wrong hat. U.S. Grant, the head of the Union Army in the Civil War and a president, was a West Point graduate.)

If every single cadet wears their hat the exact same way as the one on the Summer issue cover, then I guess it shows no breakdown of discipline. Maybe some civilian photographer demanded they wear their hats this way for the photo. If so, he or she should be politely but firmly told, “Hey, sport. You are here to photograph West Point, not to tell us how to be West Point. We know how to be West Point. We will wear the hats our way, not yours.”

I searched the rest of the magazine for photos of other cadets wearing this type of hat. On page 47, there is a female senior dressed in the graduation-day uniform. She is wearing the hat precisely properly. And on that same page is another photo showing about a dozen male cadets wearing it in various half-assed positions, all too high on the forehead. So it looks like they are still taught the correct way, but most can’t be bothered.

So is this causing us to lose wars? I doubt it. We managed to lose Vietnam with the Army in command of a bunch of West Pointers who had to wear the hat correctly. We were told we had to do all that stuff to win wars. Sloppy hats mean sloppy defensive positions on the battlefield and all that.

But on the other hand, we had no battlefield at West Point. Hats and such were about all we could use to practice discipline there. And what is West Point anyway? I say it is three things:

• a better-than-average undergraduate college

• a sort of gold-plated ROTC program

• and a military boarding school where they affect a peacetime, garrison military camp, regimented lifestyle—a more Marquis of Queensbury version of Sergeant Bilko (talk about wearing the hat wrong) or Gomer Pyle USMC (ditto).

It is that third thing that distinguishes West Point from the 3,000 other colleges in America and from the thousands of ROTC programs.

If they cannot even be bothered to get the military boarding school part right anymore, let alone win an occasional war, exactly why does this very expensive place still exist?

And you would think that the magazine cover, which is put out by old grads who are full-time employees of the West Point Association of Graduates, would be spotted by one of them and rejected.

I went there, as probably did most of my classmates, because it was a special place—different from the other colleges—with higher standards. With apologies to Edna St. Vincent Millay,

‘Tis not West Point’s going hurts my days,
But that it went in little ways.

The Corps has.

Am I the only one complaining about this in print? Probably. Am I the only grad who noticed? Not a chance.

John T. Reed

A recent WP grad who is no friend of the place agreed with this article. Even us critics blanch at sloppiness by West Point’s own standards. He also said the Dress Gray movie was filmed at the New Mexico Military Institute, not VMI. And he thought VMI may have supplied the gray uniforms since NMMI wears the Texas A&M style which are far from gray.

He also said he knows a photographer who often shoots pictures of miitary people and photogs do indeed tell tem to move their hats higher on their forehead because they want to see the face, not eyes in shadow.

Okay, the way “we” military guys should respond to that is to take the damned hat all the way off. If it’s on, wear it correctly. If that’s not acceptable, take it off. Having photographers—who nowadays seem to go out of their way to dress like bums even in the most formal settings—rewrite military regulations and traditions is obvious bullshit. That is especially true of West Point magazine which is being sent to WP grads, not the general public.